Early on in the great new season of Stranger Things, there’s a moment that sums up the geek heart of the story. Eighties small-town misfit kid Will Byers sits alone in his room, sketching his comic-book superhero alter ego, Zombie Boy. His older brother, Jonathan, comes in for a talk about why they’re different from other people. “Being a freak is the best, all right?” he explains. “I would rather be best friends with Zombie Boy than a boring nobody. Okay, look, who would you rather be friends with, Bowie or Kenny Rogers? It’s no contest. The thing is, nobody normal ever accomplished anything in this world.”
Will mulls that over for a moment. Then he replies, “Well, some people like Kenny Rogers.”
Stranger Things was one of the happiest TV surprises of recent years – a genuine word-of-mouth sensation, a pulp thriller in prestige-TV drag, a show that came out of nowhere to hit a nerve with the audience. At first, the Duffer brothers’ Netflix drama might have looked like a harmless Eighties nostalgia trip, about a tiny town in Indiana that gets possessed by the supernatural forces of evil. But it really hit home, with Winona Ryder as the mom and a startlingly great cast of kid actors – especially Millie Bobbie Brown, who made an instant folk hero out of a weird, shaved-head girl named Eleven. It didn’t look like a story designed with a second season in mind, but its success meant there had to be a Stranger Things 2. (Yes, that’s the title the creators, known as the Duffer Brothers, have bestowed upon this sophomore batch. It’s already been renewed for at least one more season.)
The new season is darker – it’s a genuine horror show – but it still has that same emotional power and a mundanely empathetic sense of grief and loss. As Chapter Two begins, it’s getting near Halloween 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana, not far from where a future governor named Mike Pence is in law school. The country is about to re-elect President Ronald Reagan, the real-life Demogogon who pushed the nation so far to the right that extremists like our current V.P. could pass for mainstream politicians. But right now the kids are obsessed with the new skater girl in town, Max, who announces her arrival by setting new top scores at the video arcade for Centipede and Dig Dug; she goes by the handle MADMAX. Max is a mystery these boys can’t solve. “Girls don’t play video games,” one explains. “And even if they did, you can’t get 750,000 points on Dig Dug. It’s impossible.”
Winona’s haunted Joyce has a new boyfriend, a likable schlub who works at Radio Shack – in one of Stranger Things’ brilliant strokes of casting, he’s played by Sean Astin from The Goonies. This guy definitely likes Kenny Rogers; his idea of a fun night is renting Mr. Mom on video. There’s also a new journalist in town, looking for answers about what happened last year, much to the amusement of David Harbour’s Sherriff Jim Hopper. (“Got any proof on your butt-probing aliens yet, Murray?”) And Eighties mall-fashion icon Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is trying to talk Jonathan into showing up for the Halloween dance, warning him, “You’re gonna be home by eight, listening to Talking Heads and reading Vonnegut or something.”
The kids are still reeling from their encounter with the monsters of Season One. The adults learn about “post-traumatic stress,” still a new concept in 1984, used mostly with regard to Vietnam veterans. (The fall of 1984 is when Bruce Springsteen chose to release the title track from Born In The U.S.A. as a single, which looked like a daringly uncommercial move – the bitter rant of an unemployed Nam vet – yet it surprised everyone by going Top Ten.) For all the geek bravado of Stranger Things, it’s that sense of trauma that makes it something special. The adults can’t protect the kids from this pain, even as they silently grieve their own losses, as in Sherriff Hopper’s sad back-story of losing his daughter to cancer. Everybody in this story has seen people die or disappear for no good reason, and no matter how bravely they search for answers, sometimes the answers don’t come. That’s the real power of Stranger Things – once you come into contact with the monsters, even if you escape from the Upside Down, you might not be able to come all the way back home.